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The truth about how to unlock calling in career owners

September 16, 2017

In a world where profitable companies keep on cutting jobs, where robots are entering the workforce, and where average skilled jobs are at risk of digitization, most of us are acutely aware that we need to be the owners of our careers. The first step in taking ownership of our career is figuring out what makes us tick career-wise. Not surprisingly, this is the number one reason for people to seek out individual career coaching. Consequently, career coaches devote an important amount of time of the coaching process to exploring what motivates their coachees intrinsically, leading their clients towards passion in their professional life. What if intrinsic motivation becomes so strong that “calling” comes into play?

In this blog, I explore the topic of “calling”, its ups- and downsides and how professional career coaches can deal with the impact of “calling” on their clients. The text is based on a CareerCoach® workshop for professional career advisors on June 1st,  2017, hosted by Prof. Dr. Jesse Segers.

What is calling?

According to Dobrow & Tosti-Kharas  (2012), a calling is a consuming, meaningful passion people experience toward a domain.

Meaningful and passion, those words surely must imply careers that are fulfilling and intrinsically motivating for their owner, who, according to Hall and Chandler (2004), would also benefit from an increased sense of career identity, adaptability, and psychological capital. The advantages for employers are certainly obvious too: higher levels of engagement, job involvement and fewer days missed from work to name a few. However, does that mean it’s all butterflies and rainbows?

Dark sides of a calling…

The risky aspect of calling is of course captured by the word “consuming”. Much like the true artist is not able to do anything but make his or her art, regardless of any form of recognition, a person with a strong calling does not have much of a choice either.

Research shows that people with a strong calling:

  • are at risk of being exploited by management. They might accept part-time or freelance jobs. They also might agree to lower pay and overtime.
  • are more likely to experience tension between personal (inner) and social (outer) identities in jobs that challenge their calling
  • might suffer strain in personal and professional relationships as a result of their high degree of focus on work
  • are willing to make considerable financial sacrifices to pursue their calling
  • might end up with risky, and even negative, career outcomes

The origins of a calling

How does a calling come to be? Are we born into it, needing only to respond to it? Even though most of us believe this to be true and some of us do find their calling at an early age, the truth is not quite so simple. People can, in fact, develop a calling throughout their career, even more than once.

So, how does a calling develop?
An important factor is being behaviorally involved in a certain domain and feeling socially comfortable in it. So, it starts by doing and experiencing a connection with peers. For instance, a person might be introduced by friends or family to a specific activity (organizing events for the local gym, scouting, student’s council, whatever). If the experience of being active in the domain results in feeling socially comfortable amongst peers, calling is enforced. Calling itself probably has a positive impact on psychological capital which in turn feeds social comfort and engagement. Much like so:

It’s interesting to note that it is the same factor of social comfort which can cause calling to decrease or change through the “big-fish-little-pond” effect: I might find myself only a mediocre musician/political talent/ manager, … when I find myself surrounded by the high-ability individuals I have sought out to connect with in pursuit of my calling.

Also note that there is no clear link between calling, engagement and performance as performance is also influenced by other factors (e.g. team culture, clear goals, sense of purpose).

So what does this mean for professional career coaching?

If you are a career coach, the following tips could be helpful:

  • Stimulate coachees to immerse themselves in work-related activities and closely monitor the degree to which they enjoy being around their peers.
  • If calling is in play, check how strong it is. Strong calling is often linked to performance orientation, not learning orientation. Help coachees to make the switch.
  • If the considered career path is risky, introduce a less challenging path to the coachee. Maybe the calling can be enacted in ways other than as a full-time profession; for instance as an avocation, a part-time profession, or one component of a multifaceted career.
  • Accept that people with a strong calling are difficult to coach. They are more willing to ignore the discouraging career-related advice of a trusted mentor, while people with a low calling will follow this career advice (Dobrow & Thosti-Kharas, 2012).

In conclusion, a calling has up and downsides to it. Career coaching can help in developing a calling and keeping it sustainable.

Lesley Vanleke & Wouter Van Bockhaven

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